Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Proving Who I Am

Today we tend to take for granted how we can identify who we are. Most of us are laden with credit cards, photo id’s of one sort or another, licenses, membership cards, and so forth that we are more worried about identity theft than much of anything else. This is the modern age. There was a time, before photography and large-scale financial and government organizations, when proving who one was was a daunting task.

Valentin Groebner, Who Are You? Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe, translated by Mark Kyburz and John Peck (New York: Zone books, 2007) is about the “histories and prehistories of identification and its documentation” (p. 8). It is a book every archivist ought to read, providing a rich analysis of recordkeeping in the thirteenth through seventeenth centuries. Groebner considers various categories of descriptions, the role of paper in establishing new means to check identity in new document forms, the function of skin marks such as birthmarks and scars, all in an effort to challenge the long-held idea that the Middle Ages was a period with a focus on collective identity and the Renaissance one fixating on the individual. Groebner examines seals, badges, coats of arms, notary signatures, all efforts to create a “self-evident visual reference,” where “their meaning is common knowledge” (p. 49).

As one might surmise, there is plenty in this book about recordkeeping. Chapter 3 concerns, for example, the development of name registries and other offices of record in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The impetus for such record and identity systems did not occur because of a sense of a new worth of the individual, but they were often the result of perceived social and political problems, such as keeping track of religious heretics. The “inquisitors of the mendicant orders compiled, duplicated, archived, and forwarded lists of known and wanted heretics; in doing so, they had recorded the names of the blessed. They declared that they had been commissioned to keep on earth the dark counterpart to God’s Book of Life, in which they would register not the names of the redeemed, but those of the damned. Their handbooks even advised officials questioning suspects to pretend that they were consulting written records, to make a show of having comprehensive prosecution notes on hand” (p. 70). These records became more detailed, including descriptions of outward appearance (such as hair color and clothes), and they were supported by a system of couriers and posts so they could be sent around as the volumes needed to be consulted.

Groebner also compares formal or bureaucratic recordkeeping with other kinds of documentation. A case in point is his discussion of skin marks, a means of identification that took on increasing importance by the end of the Middle Ages. Groebner writes, “The human epidermis can be understood (and deciphered) as a document, record, or archive. It is fragile and defined by the passage of time; its texture and features change, defying human desires to govern or reverse this process, and defeating all cosmetic strivings, too. Once inscribed on the skin, no marking can be removed, but can only be supplemented” (p. 97). Archivists sometimes have a tendency, in both historical analysis and in contemporary efforts to appraise for a variety of documentary objectives, to focus only on the mainstream form of documentation, and this study opens up the analysis to a much broader range of record forms.

This is a study that also tracks the evolving nature of standardized means of creating records, noting that throughout this period there was the “development of ever more tightly knit systems of municipal and judicial recording” (p. 154). There was a growing use of letters of conduct and introduction (documents that “transformed whoever could produce a sealed letter as valid proof of personal identity into whomever and whatever the document ‘certified,’ p. 171), more reliance on seals, the formalization of passports, and the creation of the register as a public records system in the thirteenth century. All these developments reflected an expanding bureaucracy with an interest in individuals. One of the major innovations was that these passports and letters of identification transformed from being in the possession of the privileged to becoming obligatory documents for everyone in society; this was part of a major shift in how society and its organizations viewed and utilized recordkeeping. Assessing an authentic identity becomes a process based on “matching documents with internal registers, replete with information supposedly readily on hand in official archives” (p. 201). Indeed, just as in our day of cyberspace when identity theft has become a serious problem, in the Renaissance there was a decided increase in impostors because of the “expanding systems of bureaucratic control” represented by these recordkeeping systems (p, 219). And we can readily see the connection between this earlier recordkeeping and contemporary recordkeeping, such as with passports: “Our modern-day passports . . . continue the history of medieval seals, coats of arms, and documents as written evidence of identity” (p. 225).